The Origin of the World
by Christoph Doswald

In 1866 the Turkish diplomat Khalil-Bey, art lover and man of the world,
ordered a painting from Gustave Courbet that was to make history in a
number of ways. Called L'origine du monde, it showed the lower part of a
recumbent nude woman. The motif - probably commissioned by the collector and
displayed in a guest toilet in his home, behind a discreet curtain - shifted
the limits of taboo in the world of art so radically that this painting,
which was lost for many years, has only been on view to the French public
for the last four years.1 Yet despite this odyssey of invisibility for over
a hundred years, L'origine du monde became a myth soon after its
completion. This was not only because of the offensive motif that was
discussed in the salons of Paris, but also because of its artistic
significance: its rigorous realism marked a turning point in the history of
naturalist painting. Even Courbet's contemporaries commented that the
picture had spoken "the final word in realism. However, the artist, who had
copied his model in a naturalist manner, had forgotten to render the feet,
the legs [...] and the head."2

A hundred and thirty years later Courbet's motif could suddenly be found on
an invitation sent around the world by Stefan Banz from Valencia in Spain.3
It was a photograph which, similar to Courbet's painting, gave a view of
the lower part of a female body, focusing on the woman's mons Veneris and
thighs. Yet unlike Courbet, Banz had changed the perspective. Instead of
showing every detail, he subtly suggests the presence of something more.
The woman's private parts remain covered by a pair of red briefs. However,
the unusual perspective, looking from the bottom upwards, the
coarse-grained fuzziness of the motif and the additional red of the garment
lend a mysterious element of inevitability to the picture. Entitled You Can
Spend Your Time Alone (the title of the picture and also of the song
Present Tense from the pop group Pearl Jam4) underlines both the abstract
and realistic qualities of the photograph: the close approach, the element
of voyeurism and intimacy, while at the same time keeping a distance from
the viewer. In this context it is a perfect prototype within Stefan Banz's
Oeuvre. Since 1987, he has been unpretentiously vehement in photographing
nothing but his family in their domestic environment in Lucerne, showing
his daughter Lena, his son Jonathan and his partner Sabine Mey to the
artistic public in a wide variety of everyday situations. His photographs
are conspicuously microcosmic and indeed extremely private - the kind of
snapshots which any proud husband and father might have taken. Yet despite
this approach, they are highly symbolic, with a significance that goes far
beyond each (auto-)biographical moment.

The exoticism of the ordinary, which was a major focus of attention in the
eighties, only plays a minor role. What seems far more important is that
Banz's pictures take a certain perspective that conjures up an uncommonly
dense and at times even threatening atmosphere at a decisive moment. For
instance, he captures his daughter in a paddling pool at the precise moment
when, engrossed in playing, she pulls off the head of a plastic doll,
beaming with delight as she demonstrates this act of destruction to her
dad.5 On another occasion he photographs his sister-in-law's son, asleep on
the ground in the heat of summer, surrounded by hose pipes and the
ominously dangling leg of a child, happy yet irritated - a picture that
reminds us of children at play, though also of accidents, child abuse and
manslaughter. His photographs suggest that the idyllic exterior conceals
some frightening horror. The unimaginable takes its course. Banz certainly
casts a highly accurate and personal glance at Lucerne, a model town,
sanctuary of Swiss tranquillity and touristic façades - a place which,
through Banz's eyes, no longer radiates much of its former belle époque
glamour. Lucerne and Twin Peaks6 lurk everywhere.

When Banz called this book I Built This Garden For Us, he was inspired by
the American musician Lenny Kravitz. The title7 evokes that romantic desire
for paradise which probably precedes most marriages and reflects the
harmonious content of the book. At the same time, it shows a genuine
strategy which can be found throughout his photographic Oeuvre. In the same
way that he refers to visual mass culture (films, pop songs, record covers
and advertising posters), he also avails himself of advanced culture
(paintings, installations, sculptures, books, etc.) for inspiration and as
a projection screen for his photographic comments and research: standing at
the edge of the public swimming pool in Lucerne, with a water pistol, his
partner mutates into a James Bond figure;8 his daughter, sun-tanned and
wearing a pair of sun-glasses, reminds us of Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver;
and the artist himself, with his smart short hair, takes a photograph of
himself and his wife, with her dyed blond hair, at precisely that moment
when she licks his head with a wet tongue in the trashy posture of Courtney

In his photographs Banz plays with habits of perception, both the viewer's
and his own. As he puts it, he designs "images of those moments when
coincidence and sharp-sightedness unite and the hidden mystery of reality
becomes visible in its curious ambiguity."9 So does this mean we are all
James Bonds or Kurt Cobains? Is Lucerne everywhere? And where exactly is
the "différance" that Jacques Derrida talks about? These are precisely the
thoughts about our own perception that are triggered by Stefan Banz's
photographs. However, instead of supplying answers, each picture produces a
multiplicity of questions, stimulating an active thought process within the
viewer. Basically, Stefan Banz's photographs show motifs which we feel we
have seen before: a woman with a soft toy and a pram in a country scene; a
still life of toys scattered carelessly on the floor; a girl tied to a
chair by her brother during a game; and a lasciviously nude woman's leg
stretching out under a garden table. All this is the vocabulary of visual
prototypes which, over the years, have become deposited in our mental
databases in a way that is personal, yet - as Banz succeeds in
showing - intersubjective, like the involuntary memory of the chorus of a
catchy pop song.

In a way, Banz shows the viewer what he wants to see: everyday visual
topoi. It is appropriate in this context that Banz should have chosen the
self-mocking title "Dive" for the installation, shown in Linz (Austria)
three years ago. The motto expressed in the subtitle is particularly
significant: "Give The People What They Want"10 - a verbal platitude that
illustrates the status of the banal and commonplace which runs like a
thread through Banz's entire Oeuvre. Although, from the standpoint of
cultural history, we are still in the age of post-modernism - when
sampling, covering, replicas and simulations can be found everywhere - we can
no longer find authenticity in the jungle of Sumatra, but often only
outside our own front door. Needless to say, in view of so many mundane
items, misunderstandings are pre-programmed, because the human eye is only
too apt to be misled, for instance, by the presence of an aquarium or
painting or when genuine social interaction seems more artificial than

Banz uses his own little world to formulate questions about the validity
and truthfulness of perception. Where does reality start - both the reality
of the picture, and that of the viewer? Where does the world end and
imagination begin? This is exactly the borderline area where Banz's motifs
are situated and where he places his artistic statements. His strategy is
thus akin to Courbet's, who refused to accept the idealised spatial
limitations of a painting and, ultimately, merely wanted to neutralise the
distance between the work and the viewer. In his photographs, Banz
constructs a precise balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar.
Attracting the viewer with mundane motifs that are common to them from
their own everyday life, he lets them stumble into a visual trap. As we
take a close look at each photograph, we discover its real identity - a
reality below the surface which, if we are honest, is also ours.

1 For many years it was feared that the painting was lost for good. After
an odyssey through various private collections it was at the Budapest
Museum of Art until 1945, whereupon it was thought to be lost. It is
shown now at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris for four years.
2 M. Du Camp, Les Convulsions de Paris, 1878, quoted in: féminimasculin.
Le sexe de l'art, Catalogue of the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1995, p. 23.
3 Invitation to the exhibition Stefan Banz: Door to Door, Espai Lucas,
October 1997
4 On Pearl Jam's record, No Code, 1996
5 Reproduced in: Stefan Banz, Give me a Leonard Cohen Afterworld, Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern 1995
6 Twin Peaks is the name of a small town that serves as a location for
David Lynch's pitch-black humour and biting cynicism in his cult soap of
the early nineties.
Until the murder of the high school student Laura Palmer, this American
picture- book town was a model of law and order. However, as criminal
proceed, the protagonists gradually drop their Sunday school masks and
begin to reveal their dark sides.
7 The title I Build This Garden For Us on Lenny Kravitz' first record Let Love Rule, 1989, is written in the present tense.
8 Picture on catalogue cover: Stefan Banz, Dive, catalogue of the Offenes
Kulturhaus, Linz (OK - Centrum für Zeitgenössische Kunst) 1996
9 In: see note 5
10 The exhibition in 1996 at the Offenes Kulturhaus in Linz was called Dive. See
note 8. "Dive" is also the title of a song by Kurt Cobain on the Nirvana
record, Incesticide, 1992. "Give The People What They Want" is the subtitle of the exhibition in Linz and the title of a late Kinks album in 1982.
11 When Banz showed his video Door to Door for the first time in 1997, at an exhibition called Nonchalance at the Centre Pasqu'art in Biel, the short,
powerfull sequences made his viewers feel extremely unsure about its
genuineness. The video was about a violent argument between Banz and a neighbour. See also Elisabeth Lebovici, "Lieber Stefan Banz", in: Nonchalance, catalogue of the Centre Pasqu'art and Akademie der Künste, Biel and Berlin 1997/98, pp. 43